Friday, December 5, 2008

Cracking Up / Smorgasboard (1983, Jerry Lewis)

Jerry Lewis is the only comedian to come after the silent era masters Chaplin and Keaton who was also able to direct himself.

His early to mid 60s output oscillated between the full yin and yang of his psychology. His yin was the sad clown, seen in Cinderfella and The Family Jewels whose maudlin sentimentality sabotaged his humor. God bless his raging Yang - the spastic retard who makes The Ladies' Man, The Disorderly Orderly (directed by Looney Tunes alum Frank Tashlin) and The Patsy indispensable viewing for screwball and slapstick fans.

In those films a mere dollop of sentimentality is reserved for when it is appropriate, and Lewis' private sadness is truly felt. He steps forward from the stage after the pratfall, leans in close and whispers into your ear that he has never felt truly loved or understood. Then he climbs back up and makes you laugh again. The break in the comedy is not studio-dictated pathos, it is his own.

He gently reminds us the spastic retard shtick is an escape from the harsh realities of life, which are so very rarely funny. In today's era of comedy which smugly restate life's indignities ultimately with resignation - Seinfeld, The Office, - or glibly embrace pop culture nihilism - Robot Chicken, The Soup, VH1 - Lewis' films have become funnier than ever in their happy idiot purity while the real Lewis crumbled into depression at the knowledge that airline food jokes, and ironic jokes ABOUT airline food jokes were the future. His legacy is so much more meat for pop culture cannibals who duplicate his persona as "Professor Frink" on The Simpsons and then HIRE THE REAL JERRY to play his father many seasons later.

Cracking Up, aka Smorgasboard, is Jerry's big fuck-you to all of that. To everyone who'd written him off in his heyday, to every young comedian who was draining comedy to dusty dryness, and even to his fans, by giving them too much of a good thing for their final meal. Eat your fill, go throw up at the vomitorium in the lobby, and c'mon back inside because this is it, this is the last time, all you nice people!

The opening scene is classical. As the opening credits roll, Jerry walks into his psychiatrist's office and cannot stop slipping on the shiny plastic which coats the floor, the furniture, everything. The titles inform us the title theme is sung by Marcel Marceau, and when the "Music By" credit comes up, the soundtrack cuts out. Funny stuff, but Jerry is going to dig a lot deeper into our heads than that.

The psychiatrists' questions lead to some sketches which signal the depths of indulgence to come: Jerry as a 10 year old boy, Jerry as a French prisoner on Devil's Island. Their relation to Jerry's character is completely arbitrary because Jerry's character has no story except to go to the psychiatrist's office, except that only seems to happen during the first third of the film. Then he goes to bank, and when he leaves we stay in the bank to watch a silent skit about some robbers, led by Jerry in false teeth.

Then something else happens and the suspicion sets in that 80 percent of the film was written before the framing device of the psychiatrist and his patient were created. And even that was reduced to a bookend rather than a continuous context. This is plotlessness elevated to some kind of throwdown; he's going to make you laugh, story or not.

One moment that encapsulates the utter disorientation of Cracking Up is a gag which lasts 10 seconds. Between one gag scene and another, neither of which have any connection, Jerry's psychiatry patient is seen at a dance with many other couples. The camera pulls back to reveal they are dancing on their knees. A mere trick of perspective.

Aaaaand scene!! Next!!! C'mon people, we're squeezing in as many gags as we can!!!

The disjointed pacing either lasts just long enough for you to get the joke and then move on, or it lingers like passerbys gawk at a car wreck. When Jerry's psychiatrist brings him to the top of a tall building to get over his fear of heights. He repeats to himself over and over that there's nothing to be afraid of. Gradually, ever so gradually, a big King Kong gorilla hand enters the frame to grab his psychiatrist. By my count, it takes a year for the hand to enter the frame, another year for it to drag the psychiatrist away, and eight weeks to linger on Jerry finally opening his eyes and not knowing where his psychiatrist went.

No sad clowns here. No pathos, no plot, just one gag after another at the pace only a dying man can deliver. Lucid, but occasionally taking an hour to remember his old army buddy's name. The DVD could be a long way away, but don't worry - nothing can possibly prepare you.


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